A simple, mathematical formula for packing your perfect carry-on

And you’ll still have room for souvenirs.
And you’ll still have room for souvenirs.
Image: Fanqiao Wang for Quartz
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Like a blank page, the sight of an empty suitcase can fill a person with dread. No matter how many times we face the task of packing for a trip, it can still be angst-producing, time-consuming, and inefficient. But done correctly, it makes all the difference. What a relief when your suitcase contains just the thing to make you feel at home, professional and polished, or ready to party—and it’s easily findable.

For years, I allowed the packing process to eat up an entire evening as I tried on clothes and shifted piles from bed, to bag, to bed again—only to travel with an over-stuffed suitcase of clothes I didn’t need. But after a slew of 4-5 day work-plus-weekend trips that one colleague has dubbed “the work-end,” I’ve noticed my suitcase holds the same items, again and again: a striped breton shirt, a black crepe slip dress, a grey wool plaid scarf for the plane.

For one upcoming trip, I considered making a simple packing list, like Joan Didion’s. But since the work-ends that follow will surely all be a little different, I created this more flexible packing formula, instead. It makes the perfect carry-on bag, every time:

how to pack a perfect carry-on, packing guide, suitcase
Image: Fanqiao Wang for Quartz

The “work-end” formula

Each essential clothing item fits into one of six categories: lounge/underwear, middle layers, outer layers, exercise, shoes, and accessories. And then there are optional items. Underwear, for me at least, is an essential in the lounge/underwear category; tights are not. Adjust according to your needs and carry-on capacity.

By ensuring only the essentials are covered, I make sure that I have exactly what I need, but little—if anything—else. On my most recent “work-end”—a four-day combination of work and play in Portland, Oregon—I took this method for a test drive.

Results: I didn’t wear every single thing I brought, and my bag still had plenty of room for souvenirs.

How to use it:

If you don’t wear it at home, you probably won’t wear it on a trip

Joan Didion’s packing list conveys the same detached coolness as much of her prose and includes, among other items, leotards. I love the idea of traveling with leotards! How sexy and stretchy and chic! However, after several seasons unable to pull the trigger on a classic Wolford bodysuit, I have just one option, by American Apparel. I like the idea of wearing it more than I actually like wearing it, and being in another state didn’t change that. Didion-esque aspirations be damned, that leotard stayed in my suitcase.

Pack interchangeable layers in a cohesive color scheme

It’s likely that your entire wardrobe has a cohesive color scheme. Navy, black, grey, and cream dominate my dresser, and it makes life easier when they dominate my suitcase too. Pack your layers so they’re easily interchangeable. That said, you have a personality, so…

Toss in a wild card

Add one “statement” piece to the mix that can work with other layers, as well as for an evening out. For my travel last spring, it was a Suno jumpsuit with an allover print. To Portland, I brought a long-sleeved leopard-spotted shirtdress. Truth: I didn’t end up wearing it, but it took up very little room, and had I gone home to change before dinner on Saturday I probably would have slipped it on.

Maximize your accessories—a manicure counts

Always have a warm scarf for the plane. Accessories are an obvious way to punch up what may be a monochrome work-end wardrobe. (Mine usually ends up heavy on navy and black.) Rather than bringing your whole jewelry case, pick out a couple pieces that go with everything and make an impact. For superstitious reasons, I always wear my mom’s old silver and turquoise ring when I fly. (Plus, Karl Lagerfeld says “silver is so much better than gold on the plane.” Agreed!) For my last trip, I wore a silver and turquoise necklace to match my ring, and packed two gold rings—a thin midi one and a thick, high-impact one. I wore these little earrings—the only ones I can sleep in—the entire time.

A fresh manicure also adds a pop of color, and no weight to your bag. Once you’ve mastered this packing routine, you’ll have time for one before you fly.

What I actually packed, based on the formula above:

Category 1. Lounge/Underwear Consider who you may run into in the hallway. 

  • 7 pairs of underwear. You may have extra, but they take little room.
  • 4 pairs of socks. Include one pair of tights, if you wear them. (I like them with a slipdress on the plane.)
  • 2 Bras. Wear one, pack one. Add a sports bra if you plan on running.
  • 1 Swimsuit. No matter where I’m going.
  • 1 Sleepwear. A thin, long t-shirt if I’m staying in a hotel, or actual pajamas if I’m staying with friends.

Category 2. Middle layers: A “wild card” breaks up the monotony.


  • 1 camisole and/or round-neck t-shirt.
  • 1 long-sleeved Breton-style striped shirt.
  • 1 button-down shirt. Plaid flannel, blue chambray, black crepe—pick something to match the weather and your other pieces. You can wear this open over a dress or buttoned under your sweater.
  • OPTIONAL: 1 slip-dress. This black crepe version looks great with heels, sweaters, and even pants.
  • OPTIONAL: 1 “wild card.” This is a statement piece to break up monotony, and add spice for an evening out. For spring, mine was an allover-printed Suno jumpsuit. To Portland in November, I brought a leopard-spotted shirtdress. (Spare packers can skip it and add bold jewelry or lipstick to the slip dress.)
  • OPTIONAL: Swap your button-down for a slim-fitting turtleneck or bodysuit for cold-weather layering.


  • 1 pair of “adaptable” pants. Think slim dark jeans you can wear on the plane or comfortable black pants that can be dressed up for a meeting.

Category 4. Exercise: Running outdoors is a great way to shake off air travel and see a new place.

  • 1 pair of bottoms.
  • 1 sports bra.
  • 1 top.
  • 1 pair running socks
  • OPTIONAL: Pack a windbreaker or long-sleeved layer for a cooler climate.

Category 5. Outer layers Wear them on the plane.

  • 1 pullover sweater. I wore a navy ribbed cotton version, JFK-PDX.
  • 1 coat. Comfortable enough for the airplane, polished enough for a meeting. Think navy wool or black leather. I wore mine JFK-PDX.
  • OPTIONAL: Swap the pullover for a cardigan or blazer. I brought a cozy cardigan to Portland, but would have brought a blazer if it were a work-heavy trip.

Category 6. Shoes Bonus points for running shoes cool enough for city streets.

  • 1 pair of adaptable shoes you can wear with your pants, slip dress, and “wild card.” It’s a tall order, but not impossible. This is my go-to pair for milder climates, and I wore them JFK-PDX.
  • 1 pair of running shoes that can double for non-exercise. (I bought Nike Huaraches in Portland for exactly this purpose.)
  • OPTIONAL: 1 pair of heels if you’re going somewhere dressy or ankle boots if you’re going to a tougher climate.